Offensive Defence: Managing deterrence and arms race in a ballistic missile defence environment

May 20, 2011
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar

Chair: Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar
Discussant: Admiral Raja Menon and Sheelkant Sharma

The paper presented was of a conceptual nature which adopted the offence-defence theory to analyze the character of missile defences, its impact on nuclear deterrence equations and its potential to cause security dilemma. “The paper makes two arguments: (a) Missile defences are instruments of security maximization that could accentuate offense dominance by adding to the net offensive capability of strategic forces. (b) A (mutual) defensive deterrence arrangement can emerge between BMD–possessing nuclear weapon states as a means to deterrence stability and encouraging arms control.”

It was identified that mutual vulnerability was a key variable in the development of the concept of nuclear deterrence and remains the norm of strategic stability, and ballistic missile defence (BMD) would prove to be a ‘game changer’. The traditional discourse on nuclear deterrence and second strike capabilities were discussed and the issue that was later debated was – how would BMD change the dynamics of the concept of deterrence, if at all it does? The paper also suggests that “security dilemmas are dynamic, uncontrollable processes being caused by offensive and even defensive postures. Competitions will, hence continue to define strategic equations and potentially heighten arms races, which though could progressively lead to new stability arrangements, driven by the fact that nuclear wars are sought to be avoided by all nations.” This point was taken up during the Q&A where it was suggested that no BMD system could be 100 per cent foolproof, and countries would try and increase their nuclear arsenal to increase the probability of a higher number of warheads penetrating the BMD systems of the opponent.

It was suggested that this will in turn lead to a nuclear arms race. To this end, it was also mentioned that an arms race was not possible in the India–Pakistan context as the amount of Uranium and Plutonium produced by India was many times more than that produced by Pakistan. Therefore, it was inferred that unless Pakistan procured highly enriched uranium (HEU) illegally, it was not possible for Pakistan to catch up with India. This aspect was debated as some in the audience believed that an arms race between India and Pakistan was a factor that could not be discounted. To this end, it was argued that BMD and arms reduction were on opposite ends of the spectrum as BMD would require a state to increase the number of warheads it possesses. Therefore, it was noted that the BMD could be a destabilizing factor in South Asia.

It was suggested that it would be appropriate to add the specifics of each phase of missile defence evolution in the past fifty years. Such as -- the early and rather desperate foray into ABM, then the turbulent sixties and the first flush of detente and ABM treaty, then the Reagan years when a weakening USSR was blustered into submission by MX and SDI and the humbug about Krasnoyarsk radars. Why and how Clinton came to it in late nineties and the scenario since 9/11.

It was highlighted that the crucial issue is whether BMD can push the threshold of a conflict below nuclear exchange higher than before, and emphasis should not be on how many incoming nuclear missiles can be blocked by the BMD. That being said, it was also noted that some of the defence systems that India is purchasing or considering, are many times costlier than the attack platforms of Pakistan. It was argued by some in the audience that the cost of BMD was too high compared to the benefits it could provide. Furthermore, it was argued that BMD is not a proven technology and thus could not be relied upon. To further develop this point, it was argued that there already exists a threshold (for conflict without nuclear exchange) which is reasonably higher.